Save the Planet, Starve a Peasant

Environmentalists steal food from the mouths of the poor.

We have previously documented the false assumptions behind our government's ethanol mandates.

Corn-derived ethanol is a grossly inefficient source of energy, generating as much as 30% less per gallon; it is vastly wasteful of farmland, so much so that if 100% of American corn was turned into ethanol, it would still meet only 14% of our transportation needs; and recent studies indicate that, because of the energy requirements of fertilizer, refining, and transportation to the consumer, ethanol actually produces more carbon dioxide and pollution than the equivalent quantity of good old Saudi crude.

These inconvenient facts have not stopped Congress from not only subsidizing the production of ethanol, but in fact requiring it, even as European environmentalists are now protesting against the ethanol requirements they lately protested for.

It's no surprise the American taxpayer, driver, and diner is being fleeced; that's not new.  Yes, the environment is being needlessly worsened, but that too is the commonplace result of "pro-environment" government regulation.

What's amazing is that this stupid wrongheadedness and greed is now directly leading poor people starving.  That's right: our government's wrongheaded policies are causing an artificial and avoidable famine worldwide.

The problem is that American subsidies have created a tremendous incentive for corn to be poured, not into hungry bellies, but into thirsty gas tanks.  This has led to worldwide shortages; where once the U.S. was a major exporter of the crop, we now consume increasing amounts ourselves.  As Adam Smith would predict, this drives up the price.  The knock-on effects are traveling through the entire agricultural and grocery economy.

Corn commands an artificially high price, so farmers move to plant more of it and less of other crops.  This raises the price of whatever else they were previously growing.  Insofar as other foodstuffs are still slightly cheaper than corn, shoppers rush to the stores to stockpile, leading to shortages, especially in the case of products which keep well such as bulk rice.

What's more, meat animals are generally fed now-overpriced corn.  Briefly, this lowered meat prices as ranchers killed and sold animals they could no longer afford to feed; but once that glut passed through the system, meat prices rebounded and reached new heights.

This is bad enough for Americans, but we're not going to starve, although the Wall Street Journal (who ought to know) is recommending that we run, not walk, to the store with wheelbarrows to stock up.

Alas, the world's poor are in a far more parlous state with food riots now sparking in Afghanistan, Haiti, Mexico, and elsewhere around the globe.  Where once immigrants to the United States would send money home to their third-world-dwelling relations, they now send care packages of foodstuffs simply unavailable there.  In fact, no less than the Secretary-General of the United Nations has officially declared a global crisis.

In all the flailing and hyperventilating, one of the few sensible responses appeared in the New York Sun, as follows:

Food Crisis Starts Eclipsing Climate Change Worries

The campaign against climate change could be set back by the global food crisis, as foreign populations turn against measures to use foodstuffs as substitutes for fossil fuels...One factor being blamed for the price hikes is the use of government subsidies to promote the use of corn for ethanol production. An estimated 30% of America's corn crop now goes to fuel, not food.

In other words, in the rush to "save the planet", we are starving human beings.  Which, environmentally speaking, makes perfect sense - after all, are we not daily hammered with the depredations caused by human activity?  Roads, buildings, farms, breathing - darn near everything we do contributes to global warming and all manner of other ills.  The recent rash of books and TV series showing what a gloriously wild place the planet would be if all the humans kindly vanished speaks to the root belief of many environmentalists that the real problem in the world today is too many people.

Would the world be a better place if a few billion people died off?  Well, yeah, in a lot of ways, it probably would; there'd certainly be a lot less pollution and prices of resources would go down with decreased demand.  But is that really the way we want to even look at things, much less the road we want to travel?  Those that do want this are monsters - and hypocrites too, if they're still alive themselves.

The right solution is to look for solutions.  Not ways to force people to cut back, but ways to produce more of what's needed.  That is the whole history of human progress and technological innovation, which has never yet let us down.

For that to happen, government needs to do what it is most qualified to do but rarely does: nothing at all.  The laws, subsidies, and incentives we have now have accomplished nothing good and a lot of bad.  It's time for these regulations to be totally ended and removed, so as to let American ingenuity have free reign to do what needs to be done.

Kermit Frosch is a guest writer for  Read other articles by Kermit Frosch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
So much hysteria, so little facts.

Consider this: "Corn commands an artificially high price, so farmers move to plant more of it and less of other crops."

"WASHINGTON, D.C., March 31, 2008 - U.S. farmers are expected to plant about 18 percent more soybeans this year, while their corn acreage could decline by about 8 percent from a year ago, according to a key government report published earlier today.

The Agriculture Department this morning released the results of its March 1 survey of farmers' planting intentions, along with the quarterly grain stocks report of March 1. The planting numbers provide a first look at farmers' plans for this crop year, and they reflect the first official USDA report for the 2008 crop growing year. A follow-up survey of farmers' planting intentions will occur June 1, with subsequent reports later in the summer.

The prospective plantings report suggests U.S. farmers intend to plant 86 million acres of corn this year, which is 8 percent fewer acres than in 2007......"

Now how can that be? Suppose it has something to do with cost of production?

April 29, 2008 9:44 AM
The crazy thing is that there is a good source of ethanol that wouldn't affect the global food market - Switchgrass ( Not only can it be converted much more efficiently into ethanol than corn, but it also potentially produces more ethanol per acre (300-700 gallons/acre vs 350 gallons/acre) ( It can be grown where other crops can't. And it doesn't have to be reseeded every year.

But of course, instead of encouraging innovation, the powers that be have instituted a careful balance of subsidies of corn for ethanol - at ~$1.45/gal of corn ethanol( and tarrifs against imported ethanol - at $0.54/gal ( that eliminate free market innovation.
April 29, 2008 10:12 AM
If true - and those sort of survey-based forecasts are notoriously inaccurate - then they will only make the problem worse, as the current law requires a specific large volume (not percentage) of ethanol to be produced and consumed. The point of the artificial scarcity remains identical.
April 29, 2008 10:18 AM
The UN has noted that food prices are going up.

Some of the poorer nations have asked that the richer nations use less food for fuel. The ethanolistas have claimed that they have very little to do with the food price increases; some economists beg to differ. MIT says ethanol will increase prices;

GM says Food Price Increases Not Caused by Ethanol
April 29, 2008 10:32 AM
I disagree that Switchgrass would have the same affect. It's a different paradigm really because the fields could be changed. It would only be the same in the event that all current useable ground for Switchgrass is already being used for corn. We could create multi-level Switchgrass factories and use harsher/higher terrains.
April 29, 2008 12:00 PM
"...the Wall Street Journal is recommending that we run, not walk, to the store with wheelbarrows..."

Uh... what? That's a VERY liberal citation.
April 29, 2008 12:18 PM
This is typical of the entire environmental "save the planet" movement: Come up with a solution that they can feel good about, and spend absolutely no time considering the consequences. Then, when the consequences prove to be a greater negative than the problem, justify it by saying "we meant well".
May 16, 2008 3:00 PM
Yes, very much like what Rachel Carson did with Silent Spring. "For the good of" the environment, she got the powers that be to outlaw DDT and in doing so had millions of Afriancs killed through the diseases that spread. And when asked about it later, the response was "the greater good was served". Which, of course, leaves us to believe that the greater good to environmentalists is the death of humans for the preservation of animals and plants.
May 16, 2008 3:04 PM
James, Jesse infers that what Rachel Carson and the environmentalists meant by "greater good" is the depopulation of the earth in favor of the animals.

It is not that complex. By "greater good," they mean that THEY get more money, power, influence, fame, and a bigger slice of the all-round pie.

Tony is right that liberals justify anything by saying "we meant well." It's been said many times before, but it's worth repeating, being a liberal means never having to say you're sorry.
May 16, 2008 3:17 PM
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